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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Speaking of flowers, did you notice the way Theseus refers to lifelong chastity as "withering on the virgin thorn"? Well, we did and we think it's worth investigating. Check out what Theseus says to Hermia after informing her that she has only two options if she refuses to marry Demetrius: death or a nunnery:

But earthlier happy is the rose distill'd,
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives and dies in single blessedness.

Basically, Theseus says that being a nun has its advantages and all (blessedness), but being a virgin is like being a flower blossom... that eventually withers and dies on a thorny rosebush. On the other hand, he suggests that a woman who gets married and has sex (and kids) is like a rose that's been "distill'd," or used to make some yummy-smelling perfume. In other words, Theseus thinks Hermia's life (and beauty) will be wasted if she becomes a nun, but if she marries Demetrius and becomes a mother, her beauty will live on a lot longer (in her kids).

If you're a fan of Shakespeare's sonnets, Theseus's advice to Hermia probably sounds familiar. That's because it's pretty much the same advice the "Poet" gives to the "Youth" about getting married and having kids in Shakespeare's Sonnet 2 and Sonnet 4.

History Snack: Theseus's notion that virginity should only be a temporary state of being for young women is a typical 16th-century Protestant idea. As we know, unlike the Catholic Church they broke away from, Protestants didn't think women should become nuns. (In 1538, King Henry VIII began the dissolution of all the monasteries and convents in England.) Instead, they thought girls should remain chaste until they got married, during which time they should give up their V-cards and remain faithful to their husbands. (By the way, Shakespeare's own "Virgin" Queen Elizabeth I defied this idea when she refused to marry and Shakespeare even makes a little joke about it in the play.)

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